Fate and the Crooked Pathway

I recently had a dream about the boss who fired me. I remember being pleased to see him (in real life he’s been dead for nearly ten years) and wanting to thank him for firing me. Because it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. If he hadn’t fired me and I hadn’t struggled to find a job and ended up staying home with my toddler children, I might not have started writing. Bored and frustrated, I channeled my angst into poetry and then a novel. Although I only wrote a few chapters of the novel, a family saga, before I realized I was way over my head.

If I hadn’t been fired and finally been forced to take a job working at a bank where I sat all day, the discs in my lower back might not have given out, resulting in back surgery. Because when I signed the paperwork for the surgery and got to the part where it said I could potentially die, I realized I couldn’t die. Not only because I had two small children, but because I hadn’t written a book yet.

If I hadn’t been fired and been forced take the bank job I hated, I might never have considered applying for a position at the local public library. It wasn’t a career job, and it didn’t pay very well. But because of what I’d gone through, I applied for the job and got it. And it was working at the library where I discovered the genre of historical romance and realized this was a kind of book that I could write.

Being fired, which was devastating at the time, set all the steps in motion for me to become a writer, and also for me to get published. Because it was the support and encouragement of my co-workers at the library that made it possible for me to see myself as a writer and to take the necessary steps, like joining RMFW, which gave me the connections to sell that first book.

Since then, my career has been very up and down, with a lot of downs. But on my journey, when things have been very grim, I’ve reminded myself, that a lot of the time, bad things happen for a reason. When doors slam shut in your face, it means you’re supposed to backtrack and go a different direction. And even then you may still find you’re not going the right way. You may have to alter your path several times before you find the right one. The one that will lead you to where you need to go. Although where you need to go might not be the place you expected.

My philosophical outlook may have no meaning beyond being my personal coping mechanism. A way for me to see my checkered career path in a positive light. But even if that’s all it offers, it still has value. By allowing me to remain positive, it’s given me the strength to fight through the tough times and keep writing. And since writing is a big part of my personal happiness, that’s definitely a good thing.

Getting faster all the time… Not!

I’ve been writing fiction for almost 25 years. You would think in all that time it would get easier and the writing would go faster. But this is how it really is:

I begin my book. Three lines in, I start to agonize. Am I starting in the right place? Is this a dramatic enough opening? No, that sounds too passive. I need action verbs.

Eventually I move on. But, is there too much backstory? Is this description immediate enough? Am I using all five senses?

A few paragraphs more. Am I showing rather than telling? Oh, there’s an extra that. And you’ve already used really. Sheesh. Caught in your usual bad habits. But moving on, is there too much backstory here? It feels like an info-dump. Maybe you need to tell the character’s story through flashback. But that could interrupt the flow of the narrative.

I struggle through a few more pages. But are my characters likeable? Are they going to be able to change and grow enough to satisfy readers? And what’s the motivation in this scene? Their goal?

I finally reach the end of the first chapter. Am I in the right viewpoint? Can the reader really envision this scene? Is it dramatic enough? I can’t end the chapter here. I need a hook to keep them reading.

It goes on. I tell myself I can fix everything in the revision stage. But more and more I find myself going backwards, rewriting the previous scene and trying make it at least tolerable. Then I start worrying, are you trying too hard? Maybe you’re turd polishing, trying to shine up what is actually unredeemable crap.

I grit my teeth and move on. Just get the story down. Let it flow organically. Remember how you used to do it when you didn’t know all that stuff?

Admittedly, it was a lot more fun in those days. My first book I wrote without a critique group or any self-censoring/editing. I felt like if I could just capture what came to me, get down on paper what my characters were feeling and doing as I watched their phantom selves act out the story on my internal screen, it would be magical. I know now that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. The magic is in my head. Getting it on paper requires hard, grinding work.

And every year I learn more, and it slows me down. At exactly the time when I need to be more productive. Because to be a successful writer these days, (everyone says) you need to publish a lot of books, as quickly as possible. And here I am, writing slower than ever.

But the other thing that’s happened in the last 25 years is I have a different perspective. Some of the people dearest to me are no longer in this life. Their absence is a reminder that simply being alive is something to celebrate. And if you get too focused and obsessive, you might miss out on some of the joy.

So back to the story. Which seems to get a bit better all the time. I’m starting to like my hero. And my heroine’s not too bad either. And about all those passive verbs, don’t worry so much. You can fix them later.

Fifty Shades of Self-Doubt

As I was reading Jeff Seymour’s recent blog (http://rmfw.org/my-names-jeff-and-im-a-failure-by-jeff-seymour), I was struck by the thought that for a writer, there are all kinds of ways for demoralization and discouragement to find their way in and poison your life. Jeff describes his sense of failure in terms of sales and income, in other words, his writing career. I’ve certainly spent my share of time agonizing over similar issues. But I have to say that worries about my career haven’t caused me nearly the misery as some of my other bouts with self-doubt.

Despite his sense of feeling like a failure, Jeff still comes across as fairly confident in his writing abilities. He describes his book as good art and shares how this was validated by having it named to a list of the Best of 2014. But what if you publish several books that don’t get positive reviews or win awards? It’s very easy for the insidious doubts to creep in. It’s hard not to wonder if getting published was a fluke. Maybe it was all a mistake, and you just got lucky. Maybe you have no talent, and now that you’ve been exposed as a lousy writer, you’ll never sell another book.

And then there are the reviews. A single one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads can destroy whatever confidence you've gained by getting published. A few ho-hum two and three-star reviews drag down your rating and inspire more agonizing. Readers are the final arbiters. If they don't like your book, you know you're in trouble.

Or, maybe you’re confident you're a decent writer but worry there’s something terribly flawed with your story ideas and your fictional vision. Technical ability can be worked on and improved. You’ve seen it happen in critique groups and in the publishing world. A writer you considered mediocre finally writes an exceptional story. Clearly they’ve been working at their craft and it has paid off. But what if you begin to feel that no one else is interested in the stories you’re drawn to write. Where do you go with that?

Of course, if you’ve never been published, the claws of self-doubt can dig in even deeper. That’s when you wonder, after the tenth or twentieth rejection, whether you’re wasting your time, not to mention your money, on those conferences, contest entry fees, critiques and writing advice books. There you are, selfishly taking away money from the family income to indulge the hopeless cause of your writing.

You may have confidence in your talent and your stories but end up feeling that fate is against you. I’ve known authors who got published just as the line their book was featured in was closing down. Or they published their first book at the exact time their genre fell out of favor with readers. Or maybe you’ve been cursed by an incompetent agent, who never sends anything out, even to editors who ask for the manuscript. Or the editor who acquired your book moved on right afterwards and your new editor considers you damaged goods. Or your book got the most terrible cover ever. Or it came out the same month as a blockbuster hit that left every other book in the dust.

Most of us who’ve been in the business awhile accept that at least a part of publishing success is due to luck. But that doesn’t help if it you’re one of those people for whom it seems if not for bad luck, you would have no luck at all.

Of course these days you can make your own luck. You don’t have to wait for an editor who believes in your story. You can publish it yourself and go directly to the readers. Unfortunately, the freedom to indie-publish doesn’t free you from all the things that can undermine and discourage you. Yes, you have control. You control your cover, your release date and every marketing detail. But with control comes responsibility. For everything. Which means if things don’t work out as you hope, you have no one to blame but yourself. And that can lead to even more layers of self-doubt and questioning.

Sometimes it seems endless, the way the world can gnaw away at our writing dreams and leave us empty and hurting. But because there are so many things that can trigger the doubt lurking in our artist souls, we have one advantage. Self-doubt is an incredibly common problem, something all but a few fortunate writers face at one time or another. Which means that lots of creative and dynamic people have endured and survived what you’re going through, and many of them are willing to share what helped them go on. What restored their faith in themselves and gave them new motivation and optimism.

If you are attending the Colorado Gold Conference a week from now, you will have a chance to meet some of these veterans of writing hard times. You will be able to network with them informally at meals, in the bar and after workshops. And there will also be a panel on this very subject. Come and hear Jeff, me and three other writers (including the 2014 Writer of the Year, Shannon Baker) as we discuss our battles with self-doubt and discouragement. We’ll share what worked for us, how we overcame our fears and despair and lived to write another book.

My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

For the first twenty years I wrote fiction, I didn’t understand when people spoke of “writer’s block”. Of course there were times when I got stuck, and it took me a day or two to figure out where to go with a story. But usually, when I sat down to write, the words flowed. It was partly because of the way I wrote, snatching hours and minutes here and there from my hectic life. Writing was a pleasurable and gratifying experience, something I yearned to do, rather than a chore. But gradually the joy I found in writing began to diminish, until a few years ago, it stopped being something I sought out at every opportunity and became something I had to force myself to do.

Part of the change came from my dwindling hope for my writing career. For ten years I steadily sold books and had writing contracts and deadlines to motivate me. Even after my career stalled, for a long time I was able to convince myself that my latest work-in-progress was the one that was going to get me back in the game. By the time I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen, self-publishing had opened up new opportunities.

I excitedly began to re-release my backlist, and indie-published three manuscripts I’d finished but never been able to sell. But it soon became apparent that marketing my books to readers was going to be as difficult as finding a publisher. And marketing those books consumed more and more of the time I had available for writing. For an entire year, I didn’t write any new fiction. Instead, I edited and revised, proofread, wrote blurbs and blog posts. Finally, I said “enough”, vowed I was done with self-publishing, and decided to return to writing fiction. But it now seemed a lot more difficult.

I told myself I was “rusty” because I’d gone so long without working on new material. I’d broken my long-standing pattern of writing nearly every day and it was difficult to get back into it. I tried. I sat at the computer with my manuscript file on the screen and waited for the words to come. Some days I actually got through a few paragraphs before flipping the screen to the internet to answer email or do some on-line shopping, or check my sales figures on Amazon or Smashwords, anything to avoid writing.

When I did write, it was at a snail’s pace and a grim, grind-it-out process. I got stuck all the time. Even when I knew where I was going in the story, the words wouldn’t come. Or they came so slowly it was ridiculous. I went from regularly writing a chapter a week to a chapter a month and then less. I wondered if it was over.

Most of us have heard the ironic line about writing as an addiction: “You’d quit if you could.” Well, maybe I could. Maybe, having realized my dream of being published, and now realizing that the dream was over, I didn’t care anymore.

I told no one of my fears, my gnawing sense that I was no longer really a writer. Because, after all, “writers write”, and I wasn’t. At least not much. And yet, because I am driven and goal-oriented, I did manage to finish three books over the last three years. All of them were partially written before my “crisis of faith”, which made it easier. And my intuitive sense of plot and story, honed over the years, got me through the worst stretches. And I sold those books. To small presses that offered no advances, but still, they did the editing, formatting and cover art and helped with promotion. These books are probably not as good as my most inspired stories, but they’re decent books. I’ve gotten good reviews on them, especially from readers, which are the ones that really count these days.

So, yes, I can still do this. But what about the joy? a little nagging voice asks. What about the way the words used to flow? The way I used to be excited to sit down and “get to write”?

I’m afraid to talk about it much, for fear it will go away. (We artists are a superstitious bunch.) But I’m beginning to have those moments again. Those out-of-nowhere revelations about my story. That tingling thrill when the characters come to life and the story unfolds before my eyes. I’m starting to have days when I sit down to write, and what seems like a short while later, I realize an hour or two has gone by. I’m no longer making myself write. Instead my story is calling to me, tantalizing and seductive.

Maybe I was right after all. Maybe writer’s block isn’t real. It possible it’s nothing more than a loss of faith. In yourself. In the words. In the process. Maybe the creative process really is magic, and all you have to do is believe.

For more tales of struggle and how various authors get through the rough spots, join me and authors Jeff Seymour, Julie Kazimer, Bonnie Ramthun and Shannon Baker for our panel at the Colorado Gold Conference entitled Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle.

The Importance of Passion

By Mary Gillgannon

One of the mysteries of life is what makes a bestseller. A lot of the list is made up of books by writers who’ve been writing for years and have finally garnered a big enough following to reach that pinnacle. But there are also books written by unknown, and some cases, previously unpublished authors, books that suddenly grab the public’s interest and become wildly popular. Their success is completely unpredictable. They are often not the most well-written books, although they may offer an original twist on a well-known and popular plot. I would also argue that in most instances, they are books the author felt passionately about.

A case in point would be Fifty Shades of Grey. No matter what you may think about the book, no one can argue with the fact that this was a book of the heart. E.L. James didn’t write it with the intention of writing a bestseller, or even with the goal of getting it published. She wrote it because she had become obsessed with the book Twilight and found herself reading it over and over. So she decided to write her own story and began posting it on fan fiction sites. Other Twilight fans read her chapters and encouraged and critiqued and became invested in her story. She did the opposite of what most authors do and developed a fan base before she ever approached a publisher.

There is no doubt her fan base helped catapult this book to its phenomenal success. But I personally think that’s not the only key to its amazing sales history. I think that Ms. James’s passion for her story comes through to readers and that’s why the book has affected so many people, who in turn, have recommended it to other readers and so on.

Part of my reasoning has to do with another runaway bestseller. At the time my first books were coming out, the publishing phenomenon was The Bridges of Madison County. It was the book everyone was talking about. The book that defied the critics and industry prognosticators (and like Fifty Shades of Grey, made a lot of authors absolutely crazy). I remember reading The Bridges of Madison County and thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I discussed the book with my then editor, and when I started to criticize the story and (gnash my teeth over the writing) she said, “I think the book has a lot of passion and readers respond to that.”

That concept was driven home to me a few months later when I went back to my class reunion in Iowa and set up a booksigning in the closest town that had a bookstore. Despite my efforts to promote myself as “a hometown girl makes good”, my booksigning was only a moderate success. The book store manager, perhaps sensing my discouragement, told me that I was actually doing pretty well. She recalled a booksigning with Robert James Waller, years before he wrote The Bridges of Madison County. He had published a book of essays and had a signing at this store. And he sat there all day and didn’t sell a single book. “Look at him now,” she said. “He’s a best-selling author. Maybe that will happen to you.”

Obviously, it didn’t. But I’ve never forgotten the picture the book store manager painted, of an author who endured years of rejection and yet never lost faith in his vision. An author who felt passionately about his story. An author who wrote a book that most critics hated but that millions of readers found compelling.

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve written a book (or books) that you believe in passionately and (pick one): it’s not a bestseller, it sells modestly, it has gone nowhere, no one would even publish it. I have written a several true books of the heart.  The first one (and my first book) did get me my first publishing contract, but none of the others have come anywhere close to turning my passion to gold.

Writing a book you feel passionately about is not a sure pathway to best seller status. But in many cases, it is a key ingredient. Readers can tell. They can feel what you’ve invested in a story. They may not love your book and recommend it to their friends, because the magic doesn’t always happen. In fact, it practically never does. But if your book lacks passion, then I believe it has very little chance of rising to the top.

An Afternoon With A Master

By Mary Gillgannon

A few weeks ago, Nora Robert’s book Liar hit the top of the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list. I was delighted by this news. Since I also write romance, it’s cool to see a romance writer make it to number one. The genre is often disparaged and sneered at, but there can be no doubt romance is hugely popular, accounting for almost 40% of ebooks sold and over 20% of print.

The other reason I felt a kind of personal thrill over Nora’s success is because I once had the opportunity to spend several hours with her and discuss writing. It was at a conference nearly twenty years ago. We were sitting in the lobby with my editor at the time. Nora, who was the keynote speaker, walked by, and my editor asked her to join us. A short while later, my editor left, but Nora stayed and chatted with me and three other “newbie authors” for a couple of hours.

At first the conversation was very general, but it gradually turned to writing. Nora was so gracious and relaxed, my friends and I took the opportunity to glean what knowledge we could from this amazing professional. We asked, of course, how she managed to be so prolific, managing to write six or more books a year, under two names. (And unlike bestseller James Patterson, she writes every word herself.) She talked about her work ethic and “Catholic guilt” and said she writes for several hours almost every day, even when traveling.

Next, we asked about her writing process. You might imagine that someone so prolific would have to plot and outline ahead of time. But Nora’s process is fairly loose. She comes up with an idea and/or characters and starts writing, developing the plot and doing research as she goes along. I asked if she ever got stuck and she said, “All the time.” But then she explained her magic solution: “When you write yourself into a corner, you just have to write yourself out again.” A simple enough sounding technique, but it embodies some very important philosophies: Never giving up and having faith in your story and in your own abilities.

With every book, I write myself into a corner, not once but several times. Early in my career, I would panic when this happened. My confidence in myself and my writing would start to waver. I would worry the book totally sucked and maybe I should abandon it and write something else. (Some books I did abandon, at least temporarily.) But now I know writing is more about persistence than skill or creative brilliance. I also know that if I hit a bump or a rough spot, I have to keep going. If I keep putting words on the paper, the answer to the question—what happens next—will eventually come to me. And I’ll be out of the corner and back on the smooth writing road again. I figure if this technique worked for the 200-plus books that Nora has written, it ought to work for me.

Your Book… Or the Editor’s?

By Mary Gillgannon

A writer recently posted a question on the RMFW site about working with an editor and whether you have to make all the changes an editor suggests. I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago. Here are some ideas on how to deal with difficult editing situations:

Do you have an agent? If you do, then having them serve as the go-between sometimes helps. It’s an agent’s job to fight for you and your book. They can contact the editor and find out how strongly he or she feels about the changes. And if there are some changes you really don’t want to make, then the agent can help you negotiate a compromise.

Did the editor acquire the book, or get assigned to it? An editor who has no personal stake in your book may be more critical, or even want to put their stamp on the book by making changes that fit their vision. In general, if the editor acquired the book, then he or she really likes your story and the changes they’re suggesting are truly geared towards improving it. Having a sense of the editor’s motivations can help.

What do your critique group and/or beta readers think? They are familiar with your story, but still have some objectivity because it isn’t their book. Having their input can help you decide if the suggested changes really have merit.

Search your heart. Has the editor pointed out things that deep down you know are a problem for you? Sometimes we know there are issues but we fight fixing them. Revising is hard work and not very much fun. But sometimes it needs to be done. It’s an editor’s job to make us face flaws and help us fix them.

Talk to the editor. Find out if he/she has specific suggestions on what you need to do. Be certain that you know what they really want. Ask questions. Suggest some solutions and see what they say.

Search your heart, this time for your real motivations. Is your ego is bruised by the editor’s implied criticism of your abilities? Or do the changes truly affect the story in a way you’re not comfortable with?

Pick your battles. Decide what changes you’re willing to make and what changes you want to fight. Then negotiate. Be positive. Thank the editor for helping you improve the book. Tell them about the issues you agree with and how you plan to fix them. Then tell them the things you don’t want to change and explain why, focusing on the book and your vision of the story. Be firm but polite and reasonable.

If they insist on all the changes, you’ll have to decide how important this contract is. I’ve known authors who refused to do the changes, gave back their advance and walked away. That takes a lot of courage, and may not help your career much, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do for your own peace of mind. Even if you don’t walk away, if the editing experience with that publisher has left you demoralized, you need to move on to another publisher. Life is too short to stay in a business relationship that makes you unhappy.

In my own situation, after conferring with author friends who had read the book, I agreed to make about two thirds of the changes and fought the rest. It wasn’t pleasant and I had to go over the editor’s head to the senior editor who had acquired the book, but in the end, I won. But it left me depressed and discouraged and somehow “tainted” the book in my mind. That’s why I decided to look for another publisher. I finally found one and have been much happier with my editing experiences with them.

The Only Writing Advice You Really Need

By Mary Gillgannon

I recently read a blog by a newly published writer about rejection. Her worst one came from an editor who basically suggested she quit writing: “You cannot write, you have no talent, and I prefer not to be bothered anymore.” Ouch.

But the point of the blog was that the writer ignored the total put-down, kept writing and ended up having her book published. As part of her blog tour, she tells her story, the many moments of self-doubt, the sense of defeat, the struggle with depression. She ends with this heartfelt advice: “Listen to me, new writers, and listen carefully. Repeat after me: I will not give up. I can take a break. I can change the genre. I can even go on vacation. But I will not give up! Repeat that to yourself daily.”

Wonderful advice, and not only for “pre-published” writer. Many multi-published writers struggle to keep going as well. You can have several books out and seem to be on your way, and then it all falls to pieces. Once again you face the dreaded specter of failure and futility you thought you’d banished when you got published.

In fact, of the writers I know who have “given up” (at least temporarily) this is the more common scenario. They did well in the beginning, but career reversals and market and editorial changes demoralized them to the point that they put aside their writing for months or even years. When you’re unpublished, you at least have a clear goal to work toward and that can keep you going a long time. But when your career path starts to resemble walking through quicksand, it can be even more difficult to maintain that passion and drive and keep fighting onward.

This was brought home to me last weekend when I got together with a good writer friend who has changed genres and is facing a slump in sales. The result is that she is currently without a contract after thirty-some years of being published. I know that this is temporary and she’ll find her way. And she knows it, too. But I’m pretty sure she’s experienced some moments of self-doubt and occasionally wonders whether it’s all worth it. The one thing on her side is that she’s changed her career direction a few times already, and she knows that there’s only one thing you can do: Find a new pathway and keep slogging forward, i.e., never give up.

But that’s not to say that sometimes it isn’t a good idea to take a break. Pull off to the side on your writing journey and rest a while. That’s what another writer friend is doing. For the last few years she’s faced serious health problems, while still keeping her writing career going. Despite surgeries, doctor appointments and chemo, she’s forced herself to meet deadlines and obligations and even write proposals to get new contracts. But after a long battle on two fronts, she’s finally decided it’s time for a rest. She needs to get the joy of writing back. The thrill of creation and the excitement of having your characters and story come to life. And she’s realized the only way to do that is to stop pushing herself.

But it will only be a vacation, a chance to give herself a little breathing room. To stop worrying about deadlines or how many pages she’s written. For her, the pathway forward right now means staying in the same place and catching her breath. But she won’t stop writing altogether, because long ago she also took those magic words to heart:  Never give up.

The blog post that inspired this one can be found at: http://www.wildwomenauthorsx2.blogspot.com

Pigeon-holed or typecast? It can happen to any writer

By Mary Gillgannon

I know how picky readers can be, but I never realized it would affect me until I was analyzing the sales of my indie published books. I have twelve books available, and sales of those titles vary widely, and always have. Some of my books I’m lucky to sell five a month. Others sell several times that. The books that sell well are the same ones each month. Even though I have other titles in the same sub-genre, there is very little carryover to them.

I started to think about what qualities my better-selling books share and realized that they all have alpha heroes and intense conflict between the hero and the heroine. (An alpha hero is an old-fashioned, macho, larger-than-life, domineering male.) When I was first published, I got plenty of criticism from my critique group, reviewers and sometimes readers for my ultra-masculine heroes and conflict-ridden storylines. (As one reader put it, “If I wanted to experience a couple fighting all the time, I could have just stayed with my first husband.”) Because of that, and also because I wanted to explore different types of characters, I started to write books with more external conflict and more complex and subtle heroes.

Those books were never as popular as my earlier ones. Initially, I blamed my declining sales on the fact that historical romances in general were in a slump. But now the sub-genre seem to be doing well, and I can no longer ignore the cold hard figures of my sales reports. There is a definite type of book that appeals to my readers.

It’s pretty frustrating. Like the writers I mentioned above, I don’t want to write the same story over and over. And it doesn’t help that lots of successful writers write books with beta heroes who don’t clash dramatically with the heroine. Why does it work for them and not for me? Maybe it’s my voice or writing style. Or that I get so deep into my heroes’ viewpoints that if I make them too nice they come off as wimpy.

At the same time, knowing what appeals to “my” readers is useful. I’m planning extensive rewrites of the last two of my backlist books this summer, and now I have a clear direction. I need to make my heroes more forceful and larger-than-life, and increase the conflict between the hero and heroine.

The irony is that I’m rewriting these books because I wasn’t happy with the way they turned out the first time, mostly due to editorial input. Now, once again, I can’t simply “follow my muse” as I revise them. It would be foolish to ignore what my readers apparently want. But I’m not about to give up on writing different types of stories. Maybe if I keep exploring I’ll find a new formula that will attract new fans. And even if that doesn’t happen, I have to keep growing as a writer or it wouldn’t be any fun. And I’m at the point in my life where fun is more important than selling books.

Paying for it

By Mary Gillgannon

In the month since my latest book came out, I’ve dutifully attempted to promote it. I updated my website, guest-posted on nearly a dozen blogs, tweeted and Facebooked (in my own pathetic way), had a Goodreads giveaway, and engaged the help of the other authors on my publisher’s promotion loop to get the word out. But two weeks after the book’s release, it became clear that my efforts weren’t working. My book wasn’t gaining traction, it was standing still. If a bestseller is the pinnacle of a high mountain, this book was only a few yards up one of the foothills. I decided it was time to heed the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.”

I’ve spent money on promoting my books in the past. I've purchased ads, had postcards and bookmarks printed and paid for mailings, the only promotion options available in the days before the internet. But there was one crucial difference: Back then, I was spending money I’d already made. When you’re earning several thousand dollars on an advance, it’s a lot easier to part ways with a few hundred here and there.

But even back then, I was pretty cautious about investing a lot of money in promotion. Mostly because I wasn’t convinced it worked. I’d known authors who spent nearly every dime of their advances on promotion and their sales weren’t that much better than mine. Instead, I took to heart the advice most editors and agents gave back then: “Put your time and energy into writing the next book.”

That really was the conventional wisdom in those days. Now publishers expect you to promote. Some even demand it. I’ve submitted to publishers who put as much emphasis on the author’s platform and social media presence as they do on the quality of the manuscript. A lot of it is because the market has shifted to ebooks, which are marketed so much differently. In the old days, if your publisher got your book in the stores and it had a reasonably good cover, you could expect to sell thousands of books without doing much of anything. The important “promotion” took place between the publisher’s sales staff and the bookstore buyers and wholesale distributors. The main hurdle was getting your books out there, and you had no control over that.

Now, “distribution” is the easy part. Anyone with a little tech savvy can get their book published. The ease of that part of the process clearly shows, as the number of ebooks available increases exponentially each year. The gatekeepers are gone and we now have a flood.

So, in an effort to try to get a tiny bit of notice for my book, I decided to spend some money on promotion. But it’s not easy to decide where to throw those bucks. The best sites for promoting ebooks are picky. They want you to have x number of positive reviews, and even if you have those, they may still reject you. They also want you to offer it free or at a discounted price. Since my book was published by a small press, I don’t have any control over the price.

But to test things, I went to a less well-known site and paid a small fee to promote one of my indie-published books, for which I’d dropped the price to $.99. In terms of sheer numbers, the approach was successful. On the day my book was listed, I sold 150 copies. Considerably more than the half dozen or so I usually sell in a month. In terms of money earned for money invested, I’ve come out a little ahead, but just barely. With the regular price of $2.99, I make nearly $2.00 per book sold. On a $.99 book I make about 35 cents. So I have to sell nearly six times as many books to make the same money. Plus, I have to earn back the $45 fee I paid to have my book promoted. If the bump in sales continues for a while, or it helps increase the sales of my other books, it will be a good investment.

But that doesn’t help my newest book. For it, I bought an ad on a romance ebook site. It was on sale for $99 and runs for a month. It’s a site that has been sending me newsletter emails for years and I always delete them without opening them. So, we’ll see if it makes any difference. And I’m still looking around, trying to find other avenues for ads. But there’s a limit to how much money it makes sense to spend.

I suspect the slow sales on my latest book may be related to the book itself. I’ve always written historical romances, but this book (a time travel/reincarnation story) takes place primarily in the present. While some readers bounce back and forth between historical and contemporary romances, a lot have a preference for one or the other. In some ways I’m marketing this book to a brand new audience. So, maybe I should do what I’d really like to be doing (instead of agonizing over these things) and finish the next book in the series. Maybe the second book will help me get a few more feet up the mountain.